We heard a point of view at last week’s presidential debate that suggested business is more of a zero-sum game where players create value for themselves by taking advantage of people, loopholes and the misfortune of others. “That’s called business” was the quote, and it runs counter to what so many people whom I respect have taught me over the years. Real business leadership is about creating value for multiple stakeholders—not just one—and the most successful businesses in the United States do just that. Here are five quotes from leaders who have a different point of view from what was on offer last Monday:
1) “Real change is better than spare change.” — Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School — Professor Kanter is internationally recognized for her research and writing on business management, change and innovation. But I know her as a mentor who taught me that businesses themselves could improve people’s lives, sometimes dramatically. Business leadership isn’t simply about making money and then giving some of it away in your later years (“spare change”). It’s also about thinking about your role as a business leader as an opportunity to create real change in a manner that lifts people up.
2) “Everybody needs to make a living.” — George Sorkin, Beacon Auto Radiator Company — My late grandfather ran a Boston-based company with his two brothers-in-law that expanded rapidly as a result of the war effort in the 1940s to make unit heaters, heating coils, cooling coils and related products for the U.S. Army and Navy. Among other things, my grandfather ran point on union negotiations that grew more complex over time. He told me that it was important to always leave something on the table when negotiating, even if the odds were stacked in your favor. “Remember,” he used to say to me, “everybody needs to make a living.”
3) “Invest in sustainable businesses and stay focused on outcomes.” — Chris Hoehn-Saric, Sterling Partners — One of the most creative businesspeople I know, Chris Hoehn-Saric, is senior managing director of Sterling Partners, a $4 billion private equity firm that invests in education, health care and business services companies. Chris consistently encourages CEOs and boards to establish a corporate purpose that goes beyond a singular focus on revenue and earnings growth. As both a world-class operator and investor, Chris has proven that some of the most financially successful businesses gain their strategic advantage and longevity partly due to their commitment to producing positive outcomes for multiple stakeholders.
4) “What you do is less important than who you do it with.” — John H. McArthur, Harvard Business School — The beloved dean of HBS from 1980 to 1995, John H. McArthur seemed to be everyone’s favorite mentor on campus, from students, to faculty, to administrators. Talking to him—even for a few moments—was an opportunity to pick up pearls of wisdom that could last a lifetime. Over a bagel in Shad Hall one day during my first year, John explained to me the importance of working with talented, high-integrity people who will do things the right way. “What you do is less important than who you do it with,” he said, when advising me on some different job opportunities I was exploring. It opened my eyes to the fact that while what a business does is very important, how the business does it is perhaps even more important.
5) “Always stay true to the mission.” — Dr. Judson L. Hawk, the Carter Center — One of Atlanta’s best-known and most respected pediatricians, the late Dr. Hawk was tapped by former president Jimmy Carter to be a senior advisor on children’s issues in the 1990s, and I had the honor of being his protégé and office mate for nearly two years. Dr. Hawk was a walking mission statement. He used to tell me and everyone he came into contact with that “children will have their day in the sun, you just wait.” No matter what obstacle presented itself, Dr. Hawk went through it, over it, or around it based on his singular focus on the mission. His passion for making an impact and never giving up is a shining example for those of us in business who believe it’s possible to really make a difference.
I have had the pleasure of being a CEO in the Boston business community for 17 years. I am currently the CEO of Shorelight Education, one of the fastest-growing companies in Massachusetts. Our mission statement is to create life-changing experiences for students and to open U.S. universities to the world. We’ve created a company that employs hundreds and has created hundreds of millions in enterprise value while doing right by all our major stakeholders—including students, universities, employees, shareholders and the communities we all serve. I am not a billionaire. I pay taxes. And I have no plans to run for office. But I do have a quote of my own that I’d like to share, and it combines the teachings of all the great men and women who have taken the time to coach me over the years. The quote is this: “We never have to toggle back and forth between mission and margin.” And what it means is that at Shorelight we have locked in a business model where our success is directly linked to student outcomes. What it means for us is that no matter how large we get, our primary objective will always be about making a difference for others. And when we do, we’ll have created a great company in the process. To us, now that’s called business.